By Jill Weinlein, 12/06/2012
During the lunch hour, I always see at least ten to twenty food trucks parked along Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax and Hauser. I wanted to learn more about the neighborhood’s fascination with this dining alternative, so I spent the an afternoon talking to the chefs and managers of the culinary creations on wheels and the patrons who frequent them.
First thing you notice is how colorful and eye-catching some trucks are, creating teir own ambience without a dining room. You don’t have to make a reservation to dine, and many trucks have short or no lines. The food trucks are convenient for working people who have a limited amount of time for lunch.
They are a less costly way for chefs to start their own business. Culinary entrepreneurs may not have the capital to open a storefront restaurant. It’s a great way to introduce creative, satisfying dishes and market products to the public.
The first truck that caught my eye was an artistic promotional truck for Jarritos. An attractive young lady was handing out bottles of the fruit-flavored Mexican soda. “It’s the best-selling soda in Mexico,” she said. “We use natural sugar. There is no high-fructose corn syrup.” People were happily grabbing a bottle or two after grabbing lunch from various trucks.
Next to Jarritos was the MexiKosher truck, known for their Monday Night Burger made with beef brisket, short ribs, ground beef, bacon and topped with a fried egg. The beef is cooked all night, and the onions are grilled in duck fat. I talked to customer Mike C. who ordered one of these $8 burgers. He lives in Encino, yet works on Wilshire Boulevard.
“The local burger restaurants around here have no innovation,” said the self-proclaimed burger connoisseur. If he wants a sit-down restaurant, he prefers Umami Burger at The Grove. “I won’t go to Johnny Rockets, it’s too corporate [cookie-cutter],” he said. “Trucks have more freedom to cook creatively.”
The manager of MexiKosher, Solomon Ouzer, said everything served on the truck is kosher. He also told me about their MexiKosher sit-down restaurant on Pico near Robertson. “It’s a [fresh-Mex] place where we prepare burritos, nachos, rice bowls and tacos right in front of you,” Ouzer said.
Mosying to the next truck in line, The Surfer Taco, two young girls ran ahead of me. “We like the colors and cool design of the truck,” said one of the girls from Marina High School in Huntington Beach. The hottest seller from The Surfer Taco truck is the shrimp burrito with rice, beans, cabbage, onion, cilantro, cheese and a special sauce for $9. I asked Chef Mario Alonzo why he thinks people are attracted to food trucks.
“People are looking for different flavors of food and faster service,” he said. “We have repeat diners, because we take the time to please our customers.” Alonzo learned how to cook by spending time in the kitchen with his mom. Later, he took classes at Le Cordon Bleu. Eventually, he plans to open a sit-down restaurant. Right now, he is building up a loyal customer base. “People follow us on Twitter to see where we are parked,” Alonzo said. “We travel from Venice Beach to Palm Springs.”
I met customer Chris Fose standing in front of the Currywurst truck, waiting for his Currywurst original sausage. “It’s a traditional German dish,” said Joshua Tonge, the manager of the truck, as he served Fose through the open window. The dish had sliced Bratwurst, curry powder and ketchup sauce (tastes like American BBQ sauce). It’s served with a handmade German roll and regular or garlic fries.
The Currywurst lunch truck is not affiliated in any way with Currywurst restaurant on Fairfax.
I asked a middle-aged couple why they chose Currywurst for lunch. “We are from Seattle and like German food.” They crossed the street to where the trucks were parked after seeing an exhibit at LACMA. Tonge offered a friendly salutation before they left.
I liked Tonge. He is a charming young man who is excited to manage the Currywurst truck. He told me that the owner is from Cologne, Germany. “His dream was to bring German food to America,” Tonge said. A German film crew is following the truck for a documentary about Germans who come to the U.S. to start a business. “We are going to Las Vegas this weekend with the film crew.”
The gourmet sausages are imported from Germany. “People ask if we are serving Indian food. They don’t realize that Germans [use] curry too,” Tonge said. The curry-cheese fries are onion-flavored fries, curry powder, curry ketchup, cheese sauce and a sprinkle of parsley. For vegetarians they do offer a Tofu Currywurst plate and German sauerkraut.
As I tried a slice of the homemade German apple strudel, I asked Tonge why he thinks people like food truck dining. “LA is a melting pot of people and food. We are a city filled with a blend of culinary delights. Food trucks specialize in a variety of fusion cuisine.”
Hungry for Korean food? Short Rib BBQ is here once a week serving three authentic Korean BBQ beef tacos for $7, a good deal. Their short rib burrito bowl offers half-inch inch thick short rib with cucumber and slightly spicy house sauce.
How about Vietnamese food? I met Jimmy Pham buying a pork sandwich on a French baguette, known as a Bahn Mi. His co-worker, Francisco Gonzalez had food from another truck in his hand and waited with his friend. “Why food truck dining?” I asked the two men. “It’s another restaurant option with a lot more variety,” Gonzalez said. Both work about a block from the trucks along the Wilshire Corridor.
Davey Shook from the Cali Banh Mi truck handed Pham his sandwich and then one to me. “We serve about 60 to 80 meals a day,” Shook explained. “We are here 7 days a week.” Banh Mi is considered one of the best street foods to eat in Vietnam. The crunchy, yet soft inside, 6-inch baguette, is marinated and grilled pork or chicken, bell pepper, onion, sliced jalapeño and fresh cilantro, and loaded with flavor.
Dennis Hardesty, a landscape architect who works a block away, ordered a spicy chicken Banh Mi. “It’s easy for me to pick up and take back to the office,” Hardesty said. “It’s a relatively cheap lunch too.” A sandwich and chips is $7.
At the end of the block was The Urban Oven serving pizza for $10. One young woman was trying her first wood-fired pizza from the truck. “I have a conference call in fifteen minutes, so I thought I would come down, get lunch and take this back to my office.”
Chef Scott Tremonti was inside preparing Napoli-style artisan pizzas in his custom-built mobile pizza oven. “How hot does it get?” I asked him through the window.
“It’s not bad at all,” Tremonti replied before making a customized pizza for a customer. It takes about 5 minutes from the time you order to when it is served. Tremonti’s crust and toppings keep the patrons along the Wilshire Corridor happy.
Contently walking back to my car, I realized why people like food truck dining. Each truck specializes in a different cuisine, with a limited menu, allowing the chef to prepare exceptional fare. A few customers that I talked to admitted that they eat at a different truck five-days a week. They like the variety of options.
It’s so easy for office workers to run down and pick up lunch and go back to their office without spending too much time away from their job. It’s also a fun gathering spot for socializing during the lunch hour.
Some restaurants don’t like food trucks. They feel that the trucks are taking customers away. Yet others see food trucks as an opportunity to expand their business and attract customers. If a diner likes what they taste from a restaurant’s food truck, they may be more apt to visit the restaurant for a complete meal. I heard over and over that many food truck fans like lunch on the go during the work week. These are people who don’t mind standing to eat. They want their food fast.
In 2010, Los Angeles County passed an ordinance that all the city’s food trucks must post letter grades imposed by health regulators. Just like sit-down restaurants, food truck operators pay sales tax and visited regularly by health inspectors.
The City of Los Angeles requires food trucks to follow parking rules as indicated on street signs, and pay the meters while parked.
Owner operators typically spend 70 hours per week getting supplies, prepping food, driving to locations, paying employees and serving food. It’s a business for people who love food and have always wanted to own their own business.